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RTI, News, Social Media, Cinema: How Narendra Modi Controls The ‘Narrative’ In India

In 5 years, Modi hasn't given a single press conference but has granted three softball interviews to ANI. One would ask why?

Celia W. Dugger was the co-bureau chief of The New York Times in South Asia at the time of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. In a video report for the paper, she talks about being on the ground immediately after violence broke out at Gulbarg Society, the site of one of the most grisly massacres in Ahmedabad.

“I could smell the roasted flesh of the people who had burned to death in that house,” she says with visible discomfort on her face. “Witnesses were telling me that they had begged the police to intervene and stop the mobs and they stood by.”

Dugger went back to Gujarat in June 2002 to piece together what had happened there. It was then that she interviewed Narendra Modi who was the Chief Minister of the state.

“I asked him if he had any regrets about what had happened in his state. In that period, women were openly raped, hundreds and hundreds of people were killed. He told me his greatest regret was that he did not manage the media well,” Dugger said. “I left feeling chilled by my interview with the Chief Minister. He had not shown any regret or expressed any empathy for those who had been slaughtered in his state, on his watch.”

Dugger points out that Modi has never again granted another interview to any New York Times reporter. In fact, Modi has rarely granted interviews to anyone who asked less than friendly questions since.

What was revealed, perhaps accidentally, in his last New York Times interview, was a key insight into the mind of one of the most powerful, and yet inaccessible, politicians of our times: his focus on managing the media narrative in all situations.

Whatever else he has done since becoming Prime Minister in 2014, he has managed the media exceedingly well which has served to bolster his personal brand.

2014 Election Campaign — Carving Out Brand Modi

Modi’s 2014 election campaign was a battleship well-oiled with big money. Candidate Modi spared no expense in hiring the top advertising and PR firms in the country and spent Rs 714.28 crore ($115 million) on his campaign, making it, perhaps, the most expensive campaign in the history of Indian democracy. A substantial piece of the campaign budget (approx. Rs 304. 5 crores) was for media advertisements.

Advertising bigwigs like Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy and Mather and Sam Balsara of Madison World were retained while a media buying firm Soho Square handled the television, radio and print campaigns. The massive flood of advertisements dominated all available spaces that could be bought. And bought again.

Modi became a permanent fixture in the living room of Indians. According to a study by CMS Media Lab, Candidate Modi got 2,575 minutes or 33.2 percent of prime-time television news coverage during his 2014 campaign as compared to Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal with 10.31 percent. Rahul Gandhi’s coverage was a mere 4.33 percent.

Also Read: Pliable Isn’t Offensive, it’s State of Indian Journalism Today: Congress Tweets Hilarious Compilation of Modi’s Interviews

Modi mostly dialled back his communal rhetoric during the campaign in an attempt to not disturb the beehive that was the 2002 riots but his dog-whistles didn’t go unnoticed.

He rode the social media wave towards Congress-fatigued masses primed to feel personal and religious pride and won in a parliamentary landslide. Barely two weeks after the election results, Reliance Industries Ltd. — run by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani — announced that it was taking over Network18 Media, one of India’s largest media conglomerates. Network 18 owns, among other media assets, news channels like CNN-IBN, CNBC-TV18, IBN-7, CNBC Aawaz and news websites like Firstpost.com and Moneycontrol.com.

If this timing aligned with Modi’s election, it was a coincidence. What followed wasn’t.

Media Strategy — Buy, bully, block

In the years that followed, Modi has kept the “mainstream media” at arm’s length. Information flowing from the government is strictly controlled and aligned with the narrative it wants to shape in the public.

Modi communicates — as and when he prefers —  directly with the public through his speeches, social media and his radio program “Mann ki Baat” (whose transcripts are now available as a paperback on Amazon and endorsed by Bill Gates himself). Then there is the NaMo app which has been downloaded more than 10 million times since its launch and is reportedly an echo chamber of misinformation and fake news, which is going mostly unnoticed and unchecked.

In his entire tenure, Modi has not held a single press conference in the country, but he has granted three softball interviews (2015, 2018 and 2019) to Asian News International(ANI)—the highest number of interviews given to any news organization—and one would ask why?

Asian News International (ANI) is “South Asia’s leading multimedia news agency with over 100 bureaus in India, South Asia and across the globe,” according to their own website. In the cut-throat broadcast business where keeping a wide network of video teams is virtually impossible, ANI has become a monopoly in sourcing video footage in the country.

It is has also emerged as a dedicated amplifier of government’s narrative in the past few years.

“The implications of a government-controlled monopoly for the production of video news are massive. There is little on Indian news channels that goes against what the government wants you to see, giving it immense control of the narrative on every issue,” wrote Praveen Donthi, in his investigative report in the Caravan Magazine. “As the 2019 general election approaches, ANI will be a formidable tool in the hands of the ruling party in its bid to come back to power.”

narendra modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an interview to ANI’s Smita Prakash

Meanwhile, under pressure or under spell, editors and reporters have self-censored, edited and taken down stories critical of the government and the Prime Minister. Noteworthy is the fact that many Indian media outlets are part of a conglomerate with business arms in constant need of government approvals.

This situation leaves journalists fighting on two fronts: what editorial choices to make and how to handle the post-publishing blowback. They also face criminal charges, are victims of doxxing and harassment and are hounded on social media. Manipuri journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem is still in jail for a Facebook post criticizing the local government led by Modi’s BJP.

There have also been several notable departures of news editors in recent years, each revealing PM Modi’s influence on mainstream media. In Oct. 2017, for example, Bobby Ghosh stepped down as the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times reportedly after a meeting between the proprietor of the newspaper Shobhana Bhartia and PM Modi himself. Soon after, the “Hate-Tracker”—an initiative green-lighted by Ghosh—which was meant to track hate crimes across the country since 2015, was pulled down.

This wasn’t the only case of such kind that caused worried murmurs across the industry.

In August 2018, ABP News anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai resigned from his position and wrote in detail about the circumstances leading up to his departure. Bajpai wrote about how he was given orders first not to take PM Modi’s name on his show “Masterstroke” and later not to use Modi’s images. Bajpai also wrote about a 200-member monitoring team working under the supervision of an Additional Director General in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. 150 members of this team, according to Bajpaiwere involved in monitoring all news channels, 25 were responsible to shape their content as the government wanted, and 25 performed final reviews.

Punya Prasun Bajpai
Punya Prasun Bajpai (Photo: Facebook)

As if departures of veteran journalists are not enough, death threats for them float around like discount coupons and rape threats for female journalists like confetti. These threats are hard to ignore given the sharp rise in the murders of journalists in recent years.

In July 2018, when India slipped to 138th rank on the World Press Freedom Index, Christophe Deloire — secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) — wrote to Modi expressing his concern and urging him to take some action.

“In the first six months of 2018, at least as many reporters were killed as for the whole of 2017, while hate speech directed toward journalists has increased massively, causing serious concern for their safety,” the letter noted.

The concerns were met with Modi’s usual response: silence.

Eye on the RTI

Media is not the only field in India parched for information and transparency. Modi government has had its eyes on the Right to Information act (RTI) applications too.  Through RTI — enacted in 2005 under the rule of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — the general public can appeal for and access government information.

Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator of the Access to Information Programme of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), has observed a few changes in RTI processing under the Modi government:

“The law says that an (RTI) information request may be rejected only for reasons listed in the law and those circumstances are mentioned in Section 8 and Section 9 and are called legitimate exemptions from disclosures,” Nayak said in a phone interview. “Most rejections don’t fall under these exemptions. The refusals are clubbed in a category of what they call ‘other reasons.’ We don’t know what these reasons are.”

CHRI’s March 2018 Rapid Review analysis of the annual report and websites of Information Commissions revealed that of the 146 posts for Information Commissioners created across the country, 25% were lying vacant. This translates to slower or no access to the information requested.

Also Read: India: Government Continues to Suppress Citizens’ Right to Information Ahead of Election

In addition to that, CHRI has noticed a phenomenal increase in the applications moving to the highest office of the country.

“What we have seen is this: Ever since the present Prime Minister [Modi] has taken over, the number of information requests that go to the Prime Minister’s Office has jumped phenomenally,” Nayak said. “There has been a 20-25% jump [in the numbers].”

In the latest clampdown on the independent functioning of the RTI body, the government has proposed a bureaucrat-led committee to process complaints against Information Commissioners.

Could there be a communication strategy more effective than keeping a check on the information being disseminated via RTI and controlling the media narrative while spreading pro-party content through a vast and enchanted social media network?

Social Media: Narrative Amplifier

When Prodyut Bora laid the foundation of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Information Technology Cell in 2007, its main objectives were to automate the party, reach out to voters and to advise the party on IT policies. It was a visionary idea that later morphed into a “Frankenstein’s monster,”  according to Bora who left the party in 2015 but not before he wrote a scathing letter addressed to party chief Amit Shah. The letter talked about, among other things, “the power increasingly being centralised in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).”

Social Media outreach was a big part of 2014 elections. Arvind Gupta who led the social media efforts as BJP’s IT Cell head admitted at the time that social media affected 30 to 40 percent of the overall seats, a number that he predicted could go up to 60 percent by the 2019 general elections.

Well, it is 2019 and political social media this time has more than one robust player battling to win. Congress, which got crushed by Modi’s professionally-run, highly organized 2014 campaign — catchphrases and all — ramped up its social media efforts. Although, one glance at the number of followers and one can conclude BJP still has the first mover advantage.

Twitter Followers Facebook Likes YouTube Subscribers
Narendra Modi 46.7M Narendra Modi 43M BJP 1.2 M
Rahul Gandhi 9.1M Rahul Gandhi 2.4M
BJP 10.8M BJP 15M INC 420K
INC   5M INC 5.2M

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of Cybersecurity Policy, announced on Monday, April 1, that Facebook has taken down just over 700 pages and accounts linked to INC and BJP. Out of these 687 pages and accounts were linked to INC’s IT cell and 15 were associated with an Ahmedabad-based IT firm, Silver Touch, which reportedly developed, among other projects, the NaMo AppHere are details that elucidates BJP’s reach on these Social Media platforms:

The 138 Pages and 549 accounts linked with INC that Facebook pulled down had 206, 000 followers.

In contrast, the range of the pulled down pro- BJP accounts and pages on Facebook and Instagram associated with Silver touch is eye-popping: 

About 2.6 million accounts followed one, now-defunct, Facebook page, another 15,000 had joined 1 group and there were 30,000 followers on a single Instagram account.

Facebook’s actions are not likely going to faze BJP’s digital efforts. The party has another tool in its deep pocket: WhatsApp.

Data analyst and election consultant Shivam Shankar Singh worked for BJP for two years before quitting in 2018.

“The negatives of this Narendra Modi and Amit Shah government now outweigh the positives for me,” he wrote in a blogpost on Medium.

Also Read: India’s Elections Are Right Around the Corner — And The Fake News Problem is Not Going Away

In his book “How to Win an Indian Election,” he writes that even though WhatsApp was part of BJP’s digital kit in 2014, it wasn’t until 2016 that the party began utilizing the platform for campaigning in state assembly elections.

BJP built a massive network of over 20,000 WhatsApp groups in Karnataka before the state elections and more were added every time a state went to election.

“For something like WhatsApp,” Singh said in a phone interview, “BJP has a major head start and it is almost impossible for Congress to catch up especially after the policy changes in WhatsApp. Now if you create too many groups, WhatsApp can block your number, but they haven’t taken any actions for the groups that already exist.”

“Congress doesn’t have a similar [WhatsApp] ecosystem and it is almost impossible for them to create it now,” Singh added.

India has over 800 million mobile users and more than 200 million active monthly WhatsApp users.

Media spectacle after Pulwama attack

On Feb. 14, 40 paramilitary police officers were killed in a suicide bombing attack — the deadliest in three decades — and Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility. India retaliated by conducting airstrikes inside Pakistan, Pakistan shot down an Indian fighter jet and detained one pilot who was later safely returned. The coverage of the conflict — which brought the two countries on the brink of a nuclear war — laid bare the troublesome state of journalism rendered toothless by a no-access government.

Many channels ran fake images and videos and made unverified claims about the impact of Balakot airstrikes.

The responsibility of any respectable news organization is to question, gather, verify and distribute factual information to the masses. What was clear in the coverage was that government-friendly news channels were only too happy to carry its narrative with at least half a dozen experts on-air sniping at each other without questioning it. The few neutral channels — clearly flailing and failing to obtain a trustworthy account of what really conspired — were sometimes reading and quoting tweets of government officials.

Amidst contradictory reports from two countries, fear of an impending war, concerns of safety and general panic — Prime Minister Modi did not address the nation even once directly.

What he did do — while the nation came nose-to-nose with a nuclear adversary — was to address a political rally. Brazen as that maybe, Modi’s narrative — which was on shaky grounds before the Pulwama attack — is finding its feet again.

Also Read: Pulwama Terrorist Attack: Why Isn’t the Media Asking the Right Questions

What can also be concluded is that Modi realized from his past media mistakes that absolute silence on riots, lynchings and vigilante murders is smart because it cannot be played on a loop on news channels.

Modi has been managing his own sound bites for five years now. In fact, there’s soon going to be a director’s cut on 50MM screen.

PM Narendra Modi: The Movie

On January 10, 2019,  a 14-member delegation comprising of movie directors and actors met Modi in Delhi. Karan Johar, in an Instagram post, gave some insight to the agenda of the meeting, “As a community, there is a huge interest to contribute to nation building. There is so much that we want to do. And can do and this dialogue was towards how and what ways we can do that.”

Johar ended the post by thanking the prime minister for the reduction in GST for movie tickets.

Bollywood and politics mingling with each other is not news for Indians. But release of overtly political movies in an election year is raising eyebrows. On March 21, the trailer of PM Narendra Modi, an upcoming movie based on his life was aired. In the trailer, actor Vivek Oberoi — famous for a couple of movies but mostly for a press conference — plays the lead role. The movie is set to release on April 5. The first phase of the election is on April 11.

A country — always looking for a rags-to-riches story especially when the unemployment rates are highest in 45 years, cash-run businesses are piled up dead on the roads because of demonetisation and the hunger to be recognized as a global power is consuming the masses — will get what it deserves: a propaganda film.

Here’s the masterstroke: The movie will be imprinted in the mind of the audience like truth. If the public is exposed to similar stories on other mediums it will be impossible to challenge the misinformation with facts. Science has a word for it: Illusory truth effect.  In layman’s terms, if you are regularly exposed to information — true or false — it becomes familiar. This familiarity leads to a strong belief that the information is true and should be defended. This movie ties a neat bow on Modi’s narrative politics.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6sjQG6lp8s

In the trailer, Oberoi playing Modi portrays several overtly patriotic actions like waving an Indian flag on a snow-clad mountain bridge and personally saving victims in the 2002 riots. A short clip shows Oberoi standing with a distressed expression with flames in the background and saying, “My Gujarat is burning.”

The dialogue appears particularly vulgar as it has a real-life parallel rooted in a gruesome tragedy.

In this New York Times report from 2002, an eyewitness speaks of the frantic calls Ehsan Jafri, former Member of Parliament, made from Gulbarg Society to the city police commissioner and other powerful people including Amarsinh Chaudhary, who was the state Congress Party president and a former chief minister of Gujarat.

Jafri’s last words in his final desperate phone call, before a mob brutally murdered him, were, “My society is burning.”

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